Just Wait

Friggin' media. That's what the old linebacker thinks as soon as the TV guy shows up with his camera crew and their fancy spotlights. Friggin' vultures. The 40-something Virginia Tech football ops guy sees what they're up to and he's in no mood for any more BS. Not when it comes to this kid.

It's the last Tuesday in October, VaTech's Hokies are 70 and they're 48 hours from a prime-time meeting with No. 13 Boston College. Tonight, the program's resurrected star, Marcus Vick, is about to do his first one-on-one interviews of the season and the ops guy-Frank Beamer's right-hand man and Tech's version of The Wolf-is beyond suspicious. He's wearing his 4 a.m. angry-father face and it's no act. See, the ops guy sweats over everything Marcus Vick-so much so that he doesn't want his name in this story. You might think he's just trying to seem noble, but then you see his eyes tear up when he talks about how these TV folks snoop around, digging up old dirt, calling local papers. And how, midway through Vick's first career 100-yard rushing performance in a 28-9 romp over Maryland on Oct. 20, the TV people put up a graphic chronicling the QB's offfield troubles. "How would you feel if that was your kid?" the ops guy says, voice cracking.

Does the TV guy with his $150 tie really understand what this kid is going through? Think this mike holder knows how it hurts to disgrace the person you look up to most, then have the whole world make jokes about it? Think he saw the pain in Vick's mother's face two years ago when it looked like her youngest son's future was shredded?

The ops guy knows. He cringes when this stuff gets dredged up-maybe more than Vick's family. He was the one who called Marcus nearly every day last year when Vick exiled himself to Atlanta. No, he won't let the media get this kid.

Five minutes before the 21-year-old QB steps into the room, the ops guy calls an audible. "No questions about the past," he barks at the TV guy. So help him God, he will toss those cameras and that little mike right out of Michael Vick Hall. And it'll be over, forever. The TV guy stammers before promising that he won't ask questions that will make Vick uncomfortable. Honest, man. Honest.

Turns out, Marcus is the most relaxed person in the room. His on-camera answers are unmeasured and direct, and the sparkle in his eye never fades. Asked to recount the worst thing someone has said about him this year, he explains into the camera how "they said I was a pedophile or something like that. When I hear those things, I'm thinking, hey, I'm about to take everything you just said about me and take it out on your team."

This is Vick 2.0.

NEVER HAS a college athlete been elevated to stardom, cast down to infamy, then raised back up faster than Marcus Vick. That helps explain why everyone around the junior is so protective. In reality, though, as the Hokies' Nov. 5 showdown with Miami proved, you can protect a person only so much-especially from his own mistakes. The Canes' top-ranked defense knocked Vick all over the turf, causing him to fumble four times and throw two picks. Vick's first-half numbers: 1-for-10 for six yards and an interception. The Canes thumped the Hokies 27-7 and handed them a loss that not only eliminated them from the national title chase but served as their quarterback's latest-and most public-downfall.

Entering that prime-time showdown, Vick had emerged as a bona fide phenom. His numbers as a first-year starter were eye-popping, rivaling his brother's 1999 debut. Marcus led the ACC in passing efficiency and had thrown 11 TDs and only five picks while completing 69% of his passes. (Michael: 7, 3 and 56% through the same number of games in a much softer Big East.) But unlike his older sibling, Marcus hasn't been quick to tuck and run. Michael built his legend on his ability to break from

the pocket and blow past defenders. Marcus loves to hang in the pocket, read coverages and wait for receivers to shake open. And Michael couldn't be happier about the difference. He never wanted his brother to play like him, especially after Michael turned pro and realized how raw his QB skills were.

The Vick family wasn't sold on sending Marcus to Blacksburg, but they believed in new QB coach Kevin Rogers, who had groomed Donovan McNabb at Syracuse. Before Beamer hired Rogers in 2001, he called the Vicks' high school coach and confidant, Tommy Reamon, to see what the family thought. Michael knew that Marcuswho'd like to be a combination of his brother and Peyton Manningwould learn how to quarterback under Rogers. That's why big brother was pleased that Marcus didn't flash his wheels until Tech's seventh game, when the Maryland D forced him from the pocket.

As crazy as this sounds-and it does sound crazy-some pundits say Marcus could still be better than Michael. Maybe they say it because they see him as a version of his brother but with better touch. Or maybe it's because they see how Michael has struggled with the pro-style passing game, something Marcus, the Miami game aside, already appears to have grasped. Heck, maybe they're just saying it to make news. That's how the PR game often works, right? And Marcus knows that game almost as well as the 50-year-olds watching him.

Maybe better. He knows, for example, how quickly fame can blur into infamy. After playing QB and wideout as a redshirt freshman in 2003, Vick spent all of last season away from school. When not at home with Mom, he was living with his big brother in Atlanta, on a suspension stemming from two 2004 incidents that made national news: the first, when Vick and two teammates were charged with three counts of contributing to the delinquency of minors after serving alcohol to 14- and 15-year-old girls at Vick's apartment; the second, five months later, when police stopped Vick for reckless driving and found marijuana in his car. Vick plea-bargained the first charge down from a 30-day jail sentence to 24 hours of community service and a $100 fine. He received another 24 hours of community service and lost his driver's license for 60 days after the second arrest.

He did his penance at a Boys & Girls Club back home in Newport News, Va. The real punishment, though, was hearing his brother on the other end of the phone, after Michael got word of the second run-in with the police. Marcus had crossed a line. Ever since Michael had gone national, he had taken his baby brother along for the ride and given him the best seat in the house. Michael was still his best friend, but Marcus noticed something change in the tone of his brother's voice. "Look, man, this has got to stop," Michael told him. Michael says he loves his brother to no end. And that was part of the problem-he spoiled Marcus. Michael bought Marcus an Escalade for his 18th birthday, and when Marcus' license was taken away, Michael hired him a driver. But both brothers realize that Marcus was vulnerable in part because he allowed himself to be. "That was really devastating for Marcus," says Reamon. "He had to be woken up. He had been on that roller-coaster ride."

Marcus struggled for months with what he had done. "I had embarrassed my family name," he says. "I had to get myself together and say, hey, this ain't me, and this ain't the person I want to be." Away from Tech, his days bled together. Up at 11 a.m. Lift weights for an hour. Watch music videos or play video games with his cousins until Michael came home from Falcons practice. Then they'd watch film together. Some days he'd throw the ball around. Some days not. But a sun didn't set without Marcus thinking about what he might have thrown away. Football was his life, and he wouldn't take it for granted any more.

He visited the Hokies' hotel when they came to play Georgia Tech, but couldn't handle seeing the Hokies play in person. He didn't want to hear what people might say. He and Michael spoke about slowing down his pace. He didn't need to be out late. It was okay to stay home. He spent time envisioning himself as a team leader, vowing to make sure things would be different in 2005 than they were with the Hokies team he played on in 2003. "Instead of thinking about who we were playing the next week, guys were thinking about the combine, scouts and stats," Vick says. He was going to do whatever he could to show that he wasn't going to think that way.

Rogers, the QB coach, called every week to make sure Vick knew they were still counting on him for the future. Bryan Randall, the starting QB, would IM him after each game. Keep your head up, man. Stay positive! And of course, the crusty football ops guy checked in nearly every day to find out what Vick was doing and whom he was doing it with. The longest the two went without speaking was three days. "This team is what kept me going," Vick says. "I wanted to be a part of it. That's what I was fighting for. They had faith in me and I didn't want to let them down once again."

Winning over teammates wasn't hard. "Those guys know what I'm about," Vick says. Any lingering skepticism was wiped out when Vick pushed himself-and his teammates-in Tech's offseason conditioning program. "He won every award you could win in the weight room," Rogers says, "so there was something tangible saying, I'm back and I'm here to work and I'm a changed guy."

Harder was proving to the courts and school that he'd changed his priorities. Vick completed a drug education program before re-enrolling last January. The Tech brass kept him off-limits to the media until he was back with the team. Even now, access to Vick is very restricted. For most of the season, Tech has made him available only for Tuesday conference calls and at postgame press conferences. To help shepherd Vick through the day-to-day, the school brought on 30-year-old Cornell Brown as an administrative assistant. Regarded as Beamer's breakthrough recruit at Tech in the mid-'90s, Brown has seen it all. He was a star defensive end, had a few run-ins with the law and spent eight years in the NFL with the Ravens, winning a Super Bowl ring. Vick meets with Brown every day, but it's very informal, like having another older brother.

"The toughest thing for Marcus," says Brown, "has been the whole media aspect. Everybody is going to harp on the negative, and he's doing all he can to move on from that point in his life, but it always seems to creep back up on him."

And then there are rival fans. On Oct. 1 at West Virginia, Marcus was serenaded with chants of "Con-Vick." Late in the third quarter, with the Hokies trying to lock up the W, the crowd finally got to him. Vick scrambled out of bounds near the stadium wall and shot the Mountaineer crowd the bird. A few plays later, he ripped off a 23-yard run and was driven out of bounds by cornerback Dee McCann. The two exchanged insults and Vick punctuated his response by tossing the ball in McCann's face; both players were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. After the game, more people were talking about Vick's middle finger than his 15-for-17 passing in the Hokies' 34-17 win. Vick issued a statement apologizing for letting his emotions get the best of him. "I feel like everything in my life is a test," he says now, "and it's all about how I respond to it."

The folks at Tech talk often to him about being a public figure now, about being in control at all times. Just walk away, Marcus. Just let it go. "You wonder," Brown says, "at what point is it going to get to be too much for him?"

Miami's defense proved to be just that, at least for a night. Now the national title talk has disappeared, and with it the Heisman buzz. After the game, Vick congratulated some of the Canes and was one of the last Hokies to trot off the field. As he neared the tunnel, a gray-haired woman wearing a turkey on her head yelled down, "Don't worry Marcus, we still love you."

It was a kind but unnecessary affirmation. Vick has no self-doubt. If the past two years have taught him anything, it's that no matter how many people think they need to shield him from trouble, he's strong enough to bear the weight of his name.

"The identity thing is important to me," he says. "But, really, I do know who I am."